Since 2012 I have been predicting that Europe will transition from the downslope of the Great Recession into a state of long-term “stable stagnation” – a state best described as industrial poverty. (I define it here.) For the past 12-18 months GDP and other data have shown that the downslope is ending, and that the state of stagnation now has Europe in a firm grip. Weak signs of an economic recovery in Greece and Spain do not contradict this observation: the two countries hit the hardest by the recession are simply adjusting to the aftermath of some of the hardest austerity policies on record.
One of the characteristics of the crisis downslope was a barrage of credit downgrades of governments in EU member states – and Greece was far from alone here. Spain, Portugal and Ireland suffered five downgrades each, starting in 2009, sending Spanish treasury bonds to the financial junk yard by 2012. Italy was downgraded three times, starting in 2011, and France lost its AAA rating with Standard & Poor in January 2012. In November that year Moody’s downgraded France, followed by Fitch in July of 2013 and yet another downgrade by S&P in November last year.
Now Fitch is at it again. After having reduced France to AA+ in July last year the rating institute has now decided to kick the French down another notch. Explains Fitch:
When it placed the ratings on RWN in October, Fitch commented that it would likely downgrade the ratings by one notch in the absence of a material improvement in the trajectory of public debt dynamics following the European Commission’s (EC) opinion on France’s 2015 budget. Since that review, the government has announced additional budget saving measures of EUR3.6bn (0.17% of GDP) for 2015, which will push down next year’s official headline fiscal deficit target to 4.1% of GDP from the previous forecast of 4.3%.
The reason why Fitch focuses on the French government’s budget deficit is the prevailing notion that a big deficit is bad for the economy. In reality, the biggest threat is that a deficit will weaken or eventually destroy the ability of government to pay its obligations through welfare-state entitlements. Austerity policies in Europe have been aimed at closing deficits in order to save welfare states from pending default on entitlements: the idea has, simply speaking, been to make the welfare states more “affordable”. The affordability is measured in terms of budget balancing – a deficit is taken as a sign that the welfare state cannot support its spending obligations.
It is not entirely clear whether or not Fitch and others factor this into their ratings. The outcome, however, of their analysis is precisely that: a welfare state that is chronically unable to fund its entitlements will sooner or later be downgraded.
This is what has just happened to France. Back to the Fitch report:
The 2015 budget involves a significant slippage against prior budget deficit targets. The government now projects the general government budget deficit at 4.4% in 2014 (up from 3.8% in the April Stability Programme with the slippage led by weaker than expected growth and inflation) and 4.1% in 2015 (previously 3.0%), representing no improvement from the 4.1% of GDP achieved in 2013. It has postponed its commitment to meet the headline EU fiscal deficit threshold of at most 3% of GDP from 2015 until 2017.
And this despite enacted as well as announced increases in the tax burden on the French economy. As I noted a week ago:
In other words, no stronger growth outlook, no sustainable improvement in business investments or job creation. As a matter of fact, a closer look at the measures that Mr. Sapin refers to reveals a frail, temporary improvement that will not put France on the right side in any meaningful macroeconomic category
Even the part of the deficit that the government can reduce is largely due to a reduction in the annual EU membership fee. There is no underlying macroeconomic improvement behind the small deficit decline. With this in mind it is easy to see why the Fitch report expresses concern about the future of the French economy:
The weak outlook for the French economy impairs the prospects for fiscal consolidation and stabilising the public debt ratio. The French economy underperformed Fitch’s and the government’s expectations in 1H14 as it struggled to find any growth momentum, in common with a number of other eurozone countries. Underlying trends remained weak despite the economy growing more strongly than expected in 3Q, when inventories and public spending provided an uplift.
And, as if to top off the analysis:
Fitch’s near-term GDP growth projections are unchanged from the October review of 0.4% in 2014 and 0.8% in 2015, down from 0.7% and 1.2% previously. Continued high unemployment at 10.5% is also weighing on economic and fiscal prospects. The on-going period of weak economic performance, which started from 2012, increases the uncertainty over medium-term growth prospects. The French economy is expected to grow less than the eurozone average this year for the first time in four years.
And that is quite an achievement, given the notoriously weak growth in the euro zone.
Overall, this is yet more evidence of long-term stagnation in Europe. The bottom line: don’t ask when Europe will recover – ask what reason the European economy has to recover.
In a few articles recently I have pointed to some evidence of an emerging economic recovery in Spain and Greece. This is not a return to anything like normal macroeconomic conditions, but more a stagnation at a depressed level of economic activity. To call it a “recovery” is a stretch, but given the desperate circumstances of the past few years, an end to the depression is almost like a recovery.
The transition from a depression with plunging GDP, vanishing jobs and overall an economy in tailspin, to stagnation where nothing gets neither better nor worse, is in fact a verification of my long-standing theory. Europe has entered a new era of permanent stagnation – an era best described as industrial poverty – and is slowly but steadily becoming a second-tier economy on the global stage. The path into that dull future is paved with decisions made by political leaders, both at the EU level and in national governments. While they do have the power to actually return Europe to global prosperity leadership, they choose not to use that power. Instead, their economic policies continue to destroy the opportunities for growth, prosperity and full employment.
In fact, Europe’s leaders have the opportunity on a daily basis to choose which way to go. The difference is made in their responses to the economic situation in individual EU member states. Let us look at two examples.
First out is an article from Euractiv a month ago:
Greece is “highly unlikely” to end its eurozone bailout programme without some new form of assistance that will require it to meet targets, a senior EU official said on Monday (3 November). “A completely clean exit is highly unlikely,” the official told reporters, on condition of anonymity. “We will have to explore what other options there are. Whatever options we may be adopting, it will be a contractual relationship between the euro area institutions and the Greek authorities,” the official said.
How will the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund respond to this? Will they continue to impose the same austerity mandates that they began forcing upon Greece four years ago? Back to Euractiv:
The eurozone and IMF bailout support of €240 billion began in May 2010. Greece is in negotiation with EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund ahead of the expiry of its bailout package with the European Union on 31 December. Athens has said it wants its bailout to finish when EU funding stops, though the IMF is scheduled to stay through to early 2016. The EU official said he expected eurozone ministers and Greece to decide on how best to help Athens at a meeting of finance ministers in Brussels on 8 December.
If the EU decides to continue with the same type of bailout program, thus continuing to demand government spending cuts and tax hikes, then their response to this particular situation will continue the economic policies that keep Europe on its current path into perpetual industrial poverty.
The second example, France, also presents Europe’s political leadership with a fork-in-the-road kind of choice. From the EU Observer:
France’s finance minister cut the country’s deficit forecast for 2015 on Wednesday (3 November) adding that Paris will be well within the EU’s 3 percent limit by 2017. Michel Sapin told a press conference that he had revised France’s expected deficit down to 4.1 percent from the 4.3 percent previously forecast, as a consequence of extra savings worth €3.6 billion announced by Sapin in October.
That sounds good, but what is the reason for this improved forecast – and, as always with optimistic outlooks in Europe, can we trust it?
The extra money does not come from additional spending cuts but instead from lower interest expenses from servicing France’s debts, a reduction in its contributions to the EU budget, and extra tax revenues from a clampdown on tax evasion and a new tax on second homes. “We have revised the 2015 deficit … without touching the fundamentals of French economic policy,” Sapin told reporters.
This also means they have done their debt revision without seeing a change for the better in “the fundamentals” of the French economy. In other words, no stronger growth outlook, no sustainable improvement in business investments or job creation. As a matter of fact, a closer look at the measures that Mr. Sapin refers to reveals a frail, temporary improvement that will not put France on the right side in any meaningful macroeconomic category:
- A lower interest rate on French government debt is almost entirely the work of the European Central Bank and its irresponsible money-printing; the French are paying lower interest rates on ten-year treasury bonds than we do here in the United States, but that will last only for as long as investors remain confident in the ECB’s version of Quantitative Easing; interest rates will quickly start rising again once that confidence is shattered – and it will be shattered as soon as investors realize that, unlike in the United States, the European economy will not start growing again;
- Reduced French EU contributions come at the expense of other countries and likely won’t last very long; as soon as other countries have grown impatient with the French, they will force Paris to increase its contributions again; besides, this “reduced EU contributions” thing is basically just an accounting trick – effectively it means that the EU has reduced their demands on how much France needs to cut its deficit to be “compliant”;
- A new second-home tax is a tax increase to which taxpayers will make the necessary adjustments; they will move from owning a home to renting one or to extended-stay vacations at luxury hotels; once that adjustment reaches a critical point the French government will have lost the new revenue and their hopes of being “compliant” with the EU deficit requirement will fade away.
If the French government spent all the political and legislative efforts that went into these measures, on structural reforms to the French government, then France would be en route to a major improvement in growth, jobs creation, business investments and the standard of living of their citizens. But that is not going to happen. All they do is try to comply with the same old statist rules that have forced them to balance their budget – and save their welfare state – instead of promoting the prosperity of their people.
There is a painful shortsightedness in European fiscal policy, one that almost entirely prevents the political leadership of that continent to look beyond the next fiscal year. It is time for them to stop, raise their eyes to the horizon and think about where they want their continent to be ten years from now.
If they don’t, I can surely say where they are going to be: in an era of industrial poverty, colored by three shades of grey, where children are destined to – at best – live a life no better than what their parents could accomplish. Think Argentina since the decline and fall of their 15 years of global economic fame.
Think Eastern Europe under Soviet rule.
Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra coined the proverbial phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. That is certainly true about the European economic crisis. This past week saw a crop of bad news from the Old World. Nothing very dramatic – and certainly nothing that should surprise regular readers of this blog – but nevertheless bad news. In this first of two parts, let’s look at a report from the EU Observer:
The eurozone appears to have come back onto the markets’ radar amid low inflation, poor economic news from Germany, and Greece’s bailout exit plans. Greece’s long-term borrowing costs went above 8 percent on Thursday (16 October) – their highest for almost a year – as investors took fright at the fragile political situation in the country. The government in Athens has tried to shore up popular support by suggesting it will exit its bailout programme with the International Monetary fund more than a year early.
There is an important background here. The bailout program had three components:
1. The Greek government will do everything in its power to combine a balanced budget with protecting as much as possible of its welfare state against the economic depression;
2. In return for the Greek government’s tax increases and spending cuts, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank provided loans that kept the Greek government afloat cash-wise;
3. The only metric used to measure the success of bailout policies is the stability of a balanced government budget.
If GDP did not grow, if unemployment was at 30 percent, if more than half the young in Greece had no job to go to… none of that mattered. As a result, there has been no structural improvement of the Greek economy; government has not reduced its burden on the private sector – quite the contrary, in fact. Welfare systems have been reduced, but higher taxes have prevented welfare recipients from transitioning into self sufficiency.
As a result, the social situation in Greece is almost unbearable. The political reaction has come in the form of a surge for parties on the extreme flanks of the political spectrum. In my book Industrial Poverty I explain in detail what happened in Greece, what brought the country down from the heights of European prosperity to permanent stagnation. Today, sadly, the country is little more than a macroeconomic wasteland.
It is with this in mind that one should approach the news that Greece is considering leaving the bailout program. The coalition government is under enormous pressure to save the nation itself, to keep parliamentary democracy in place and to inject some sort of life into the economy. If they fail either of two extreme political movements will take over – the Chavista communists in Syriza or the Nazis in Golden Dawn.
International investors know this and are understandably scared. In their mind the bailout is the least of available evils; in reality, as I explain in my book, the attempts at balancing the budget and saving the welfare state in the midst of the crisis are the very policies that keep Greece from recovering; weak signs of a minor recovery earlier this year have yet to materialize into anything other than the “beaten dog” syndrome often following protracted periods of austertiy.
This is the very reason why Greece is now considering leaving the bailout program. They cannot continue forever to try to muddle through with an economy deadlocked in depression and a democracy so fragile that it has brought the first Nazis into a parliament in Europe for the first time since World War II.
However, as the EU Observer explains, the Greek government is caught between a rock and a hard place – as are other hard-hit euro zone economies:
But the recent announcement spooked investors, unconvinced that Greece can stand alone. Long-term borrowing costs also jumped in the weak periphery states, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The market jitters – while not comparable to the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011 and 2012 – come as the eurozone’s main economies are once again at odds over policy responses.
France also belongs on that list, primarily for its typically European attempt at leaving the bailout program. Its government tried to leave the bailout path for a left turn into the quagmire of government expansionism. Thinking that more government spending, on top of the largest government spending in the world, could in fact bring about a recovery, the French socialists who won the 2012 elections scoffed at the EU balanced-budget rules and went full speed ahead with their government-expansionist agenda.
Two years later that agenda has hit a brick wall. Massive tax increases, supposed to pay for some of the new government spending, have only resulted in an exodus of brain power and entrepreneurship. The French GDP is standing more still than the Eiffel Tower.
In fact, the EU Observer notes,
France and Italy are fighting a rearguard action for more flexibility saying budget slashing will condemn them to further low growth. Paris is on collision course with both Berlin and the European Commission after having indicated that it wants an extra two years to bring its budget deficit to below 3 percent of GDP. Italy, meanwhile, has submitted a national budget for 2015 which brings the country to the edge of breaking the rules.
The French challenge to the budget-balance rules compounds the uncertainty emanating from the talks in Athens about a Greek bailout exit. It is more than a theoretical possibility that at least one of these countries leaves the euro zone in the next two years, and does so for a combination of political and economic reasons. That would be an institutional change to the European economy – and really the global economy – of such proportions that no traditional quantitative analysis can render justice to a forecast of its effects. It is therefore entirely logical that global investors are growing more uncertain and as a result demand higher risk premiums.
As the icing on the uncertainty cake, informed investors know that Marine Le Pen may very well become France’s next president. If she wins in 2017 her first order of business is in all likelihood going to be to exit the euro zone and reintroduce the franc. On the one hand that could be an “orderly” exit; on the other hand it would have ripple effects throughout the southern rim of the euro zone to the point where the very future of the common currency is in grave danger.
In summary: mounting uncertainty about the future of the euro is being mixed with growing uncertainty about the macroeconomic performance of the member states of the currency union.
Stay tuned for the second part about the bad news out of Europe.
I recently noted that the French government has resorted to desperate tax cuts. These cuts reflect a major change in economic thinking in Paris, but the decisiveness of this turnaround struck me as a bit odd. After all, there was no unpredictable economic news out there to explain why it happened now.
Or was there?
British newspaper Independent has the story:
The land of 400 cheeses, the birthplace of Molière and Coco Chanel, is facing an unprecedented exodus. Up to 2.5 million French people now live abroad, and more are bidding “au revoir” each year. A French parliamentary commission of inquiry is due to publish its report on emigration on Tuesday, but Le Figaro reported yesterday that because of a political dispute among its members over the reasons for the exodus, a “counter-report” by the opposition right-wing is to be released as an annex.
And why is this such a controversial topic? The Independent explains:
Centre-right deputies are convinced that the people who are the “lifeblood” of France are leaving because of “the impression that it’s impossible to succeed”, said Luc Chatel, secretary general of the UMP, who chaired the commission. There is “an anti-work mentality, absurd fiscal pressure, a lack of promotion prospects, and the burden of debt hanging over future generations,” he told Le Figaro.
That is France in a nutshell. No other country in Europe, not even Sweden, has been able to combine welfare-state entitlements with ideologically driven labor market regulations to the extent that the French have. (In Sweden, labor market law delegates the right to regulate the labor market to the unions instead, effectively elevating them to government power without government accountability.) But this is not the work of two years of socialism under President Hollande – it has been very long in the making. Alas, the Independent continues:
However, the report’s author Yann Galut, a Socialist deputy, said the UMP was unhappy because it had been unable to prove that a “massive exile” had taken place since the election of President François Hollande in 2012. What is certain is the steady rise in the number of emigrants across all sections of society, from young people looking for jobs to entrepreneurs to pensioners. According to a French Foreign Ministry report published at the end of last month, the top five destinations are the UK, Switzerland, the US, Belgium and Germany.
So here we have the explanation of why the French government is now scrambling to cut taxes. Their tax increases were the straw that broke the camel’s back. By raising the top income tax bracket to a confiscatory 75 percent they gave tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, medical doctors, computer engineers, finance experts, investors and business executives the final reason they needed to leave the country. As a result, tax revenue from the punitive taxes introduced under Hollande are nowhere near what the socialist government had planned for. As a result there is less money in government coffers to pay for the same socialist government’s entitlements.
The smaller-than-planned revenue stream in combination with larger-than-affordable entitlement spending opens up a budget deficit. The French government is already in breach of the EU balanced-budget law, often referred to as the Stability and Growth Pact. A self-inflicted escalation of the deficit puts Hollande in direct confrontation with the EU Commission, which is already loudly complaining that France seems perennially unable to bring its deficit down under the ceiling of three percent of GDP mandated by the aforementioned Pact.
Back now to the Independent for some more details on the French exodus:
Hélène Charveriat, the delegate-general of the Union of French Citizens Abroad … told The Independent that while the figure of 2.5 million expatriates is “not enormous”, what is more troubling is the increase of about 2 per cent each year. “Young people feel stuck, and they want interesting jobs. Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working. Pensioners can also pay less tax abroad,” she says.
Wait… what was that?
Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working.
Those evil capitalists. Two 20-year-old guys from working class homes have a passion for fixing people’s cars. They decide to open their own shop and start by working their way through the onerous French bureaucratic grinds to get their business permit. (I know someone who tried that. A story in and of itself. I’ll see if he wants to tell it in his own words.) Once they have the permit they scrape together whatever cash they can, buy some used tools and put down two months rent on a garage at a closed-down gas station. While they get the tools together, find the garage and get everything set up they obviously have no revenue. But that does not stop The People’s Friendly Government from showing up at their doorsteps to collect taxes on money they have not yet made.
These two young Frenchmen do not exist. And if they did, they would move to England and open their shop there instead, thus joining the growing outflow of driven, productive Frenchmen from all walks of life. But it is actually good that the Independent is less interested in reporting on the young French expatriates and instead puts focus on the country’s hate-the-rich taxes:
As for high-earners, almost 600 people subject to a wealth tax on assets of more than €800,000 (£630,000) left France in 2012, 20 per cent more than the previous year.
Governments in high-tax countries rarely pay any attention to the outflow of their young, productive and aspiring citizens. The argument is that those young people don’t pay much taxes anyway. Right now. Of course, if they are allowed to work and build careers and businesses instead of emigrating, they will become wealthy and create lots of jobs in the future. That, however, is a perspective that big-government proponents notoriously overlook. Therefore, there is really just one way to explain to them what harm their punitive tax policies do, and that is to shed light on the exodus of wealthy, productive people happening right now. Such news can actually work.
As indicated by my earlier article on the desperate French tax cuts, it may already be working. The French government cannot ignore forever how its combination of a wealth tax and a 75-percent tax on top incomes destroy existing jobs and, more importantly, solidly and decisively prevents the creation of new ones. They cannot forever dwell in the delusion that government somehow can raise GDP growth above the current level of zero percent, and they certainly cannot use government to create jobs for the more than ten percent of the work force that are currently unemployed.
It remains to be seen how sincere the French socialist government is about reversing course. It is by no means certain that the newly announced tax cuts mark a turning point. It could just as well be that they are mere token gestures, aimed at giving false hope of a better future to new prospective emigrants.
Almost everywhere you look in Europe there is unrelenting support for a continuation of policies that preserve big government. Hell-bent on saving their welfare state, the leaders of both the EU and the member states stubbornly push for either more government-saving austerity or more government-saving spending. In both cases the end result is the same: fiscal policy puts government above the private sector and leads the entire continent into industrial poverty.
Monetary policy is also designed for the same purpose, which has now placed Europe in the liquidity trap and a potentially lethal deflation spiral. The European Central Bank is fearful of a future with declining prices, thus pumping out new money supply to somehow re-ignite inflation. In doing so they are copying a tried-and-failed Japanese strategy, on which Forbes magazine commented in April after news came out that prices had turned a corner in the Land of the Rising Sun:
Japan’s government and central bank are likely to get much more inflation than they bargained for. This risks a sharp spike in interest rates and a bond market rout, with investors fleeing amid concerns about the government’s ability to repay its enormous debt load. In the ultimate irony, it may not be the deflationary bogey man which finally kills the Japanese economy. Rather, it could be the inflation so beloved by central bankers and economists that does it.
This is a good point. Monetary inflation is an entirely different phenomenon than real-sector inflation. The latter is anchored in actual economic activity, i.e., production, consumption, trade and investment. It emerges because basic, universally understood free-market mechanisms go to work: demand is bigger than supply. This classic situation keeps inflation under control because prices will only rise so long as producers and sellers can turn a profit; if they raise prices too much they attract new supply and profit margins shrink or vanish.
Monetary inflation is a different phenomenon, based not in real-sector activity but in artificially created spending power. I am not going to go into detail on how that works; for an elaborate explanation of monetary inflation, please see my articles on Venezuela. However, it is important to remember what kind of inflation European central bankers seem to be dreaming of. As they see it, monetary inflation is the last line of defense against a deflation death spiral, regardless of what is happening in Japan.
They may be right. Again, there is almost unanimous support among Europe’s political elite that whatever policies they choose, the overarching goal is to preserve the welfare state. However, there is a very remote chance that something is about to happen on that front. And it is coming from an unlikely corner of the continent – consider this story from France, reported by the EU Observer:
France has put itself on a collision course with its EU partners after rejecting calls for it to adopt further austerity measures to bring its budget deficit in line with EU rules. Outlining plans for 2015 on Wednesday (1 October), President Francois Hollande’s government said that “no further effort will be demanded of the French, because the government — while taking the fiscal responsibility needed to put the country on the right track — rejects austerity.” The budget sets out a programme of spending cuts worth €50 billion over the next three years, but will result in France not hitting the EU’s target of a budget deficit of 3 percent or less until 2017, four years later than initially forecast.
In the beginning, Holland stuck to his socialist guns, trying to grow government spending and raise taxes. However, he soon changed his mind and combined tax hikes with cuts in government spending, as per demands from the EU Commission. Now he is taking yet another step away from established fiscal policy norms by combining spending cuts, albeit limited ones, with tax cuts – yes, tax cuts:
The savings will offset tax cuts for businesses worth €40 billion in a bid to incentivise firms to hire more workers and reduce the unemployment rate. In a statement on Wednesday, finance minister Michel Sapin said the government had decided to “adapt the pace of deficit reduction to the economic situation of the country.”
The “adaptation” rhetoric is the same as the French socialists had when they took office two years ago. What has changed is the purpose: back then their fiscal strategy was entirely to grow government – because according to socialist doctrine government and only government can get anything done in this world. Now they are actually a bit concerned with the economic conditions of the private sector.
This goes to show how desperate Europe’s policy makers are becoming. In the French case it is entirely possible that Hollande is willing to become a born-again capitalist in order to keep Marine Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace. After all, the next presidential election is only three years out. But it really does not matter what Hollande’s motives are, so long as he gets his fiscal policy right.
The EU Observer again:
Last year, France was given a two-year extension by the European Commission to bring its deficit in line by 2015, but abandoned the target earlier this summer. It now forecasts that its deficit will be 4.3 percent next year. The country’s debt pile has also risen to 95 percent of GDP, well above the 60 percent limit set out in the EU’s stability and growth pact. Meanwhile, Paris has revised down its growth forecast from 1 percent to 0.4 percent over the whole of 2014, and cut its projection for 2015 to 1 percent from 1.7 percent. It does not expect to reach a 2 percent growth rate until 2019.
This is serious stuff but hardly surprising. I predict this perennial stagnation in my new book Industrial Poverty. And, as I point out in my book, a growth rate at two percent per year only keeps people’s standard of living from declining- it maintains a state of economic stagnation. There will be no new jobs created, welfare rolls won’t shrink and standard of living will not improve. For that it takes a lot more than two percent GDP growth per year.
Hollande’s new openness to – albeit minuscule – tax cuts should be viewed against the backdrop of this very serious outlook. He will probably not succeed, as the tax cuts are so small compared to the total tax burden, and the tax-cut package is not combined with labor-market deregulation. But the mere fact that he is willing to try this shows that there is at least a faint glimpse of hope for a thought revolution among Europe’s political leaders. Maybe, just maybe, they may come around and realize that their welfare statism is taking them deeper and deeper into eternal industrial poverty.
Europe keeps struggling with its impossible balanced-budget endeavor.
In a desperate attempt to save the welfare state while also balancing the government budget they keep destroying economic opportunity for their entrepreneurs and households. This leads to panic-driven spending cuts combined with higher taxes, the worst alternative of all routes available to a balanced budget. The reason – and I keep emphasizing this ad nauseam – is that they desperately do not want to remove the deficit-driving spending programs.
To break out of the shackles of their self-imposed welfare-statist version of austerity, some European politicians have suggested that the EU needs to revise the rules under which member states are brought into compliance with the Union’s balanced-budget amendment. This is not viewed kindly among the Eurocrats in Brussels. From Euractiv:
The European Commission will not let EU budget discipline rules be flouted, incoming economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici said on Monday (29 September), days after his former colleagues in the French government said Paris would again miss EU targets. Last year, European Union finance ministers gave Paris an extra two years to bring its budget deficit below the EU ceiling of 3% of national output after France missed a 2013 deadline in what is called the ‘excessive deficit procedure’. But earlier this month, the French government said it would not meet the new 2015 deadline either and instead would reduce its budget shortfall below 3% only in 2017.
They certainly could meet the deadline, and they could do it even faster than proposed. All they would need to do would be to chainsaw the entire government budget until what is left fits within the three-percent rule. However, they know they cannot do that, for two reasons. The first is simple macroeconomics: so long as you do not cut taxes, any spending cuts will mean government takes more from the private sector and, relatively speaking, gives less back. That reduces private-sector activity and thus exacerbates the recession.
The second reason is that when half or more of the population depend on government for survival, you can only do so many spending cuts before they set the country on fire. The solution is a predictable way out of dependency, one that gives people an opportunity to become self sufficient without suffering undue, immediate financial hardship. That excludes tax hikes and sudden spending cuts – but on the other hand it mandates structural spending cuts that permanently terminate entitlement programs.
However, this solution to their unending economic crisis keeps eluding Europe’s policy makers.
Europe’s political leaders are getting increasingly desperate, especially since the European Central Bank’s aggressively expansionary monetary policy is proving ineffective. The more money the ECB prints, the worse the euro-zone economy performs.
The desperation is now at such a level that even the president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, is calling for EU governments to start big spending programs. Writes Benjamin Fox at EU Observer:
The European Central Bank (ECB) is preparing to step up its attempts to breathe life into the eurozone’s stagnant economy. During a speech in the US on Friday (22 August), ECB chief Mario Draghi called on eurozone treasuries to take fresh steps to stimulate demand amid signs that the bloc’s tepid recovery is stalling. “It may be useful to have a discussion on the overall fiscal stance of the euro area,” Draghi told delegates at a meeting of financiers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, adding that governments should shift towards “a more growth-friendly overall fiscal stance.” “The risks of ‘doing too little’…outweigh those of ‘doing too much’”, he added.
Some trivia first. If you want to be rich, you have a condo on Manhattan. If you actually are rich, you have an oceanfront property in West Palm Beach. If you are genuinely wealthy you have a second home in Jackson Hole. The only people who live in Jackson Hole permanently are dyed-in-the-wool Wyomingites like former Vice President Dick Cheney (a very nice man whom I have had the honor of meeting a couple of times). It is a cold place with short, mildly warm summers and long, unforgiving winters. It is also breathtakingly beautiful.
Now for the real story… There is no doubt that Draghi is beyond worried. He should be: his monetary policy is useless. Europe is in the liquidity trap, and the European Central Bank’s expansionist monetary policy is part of the reason for this. For almost a year now Draghi has pushed the ECB to arrogantly violate the principles upon which the Bank was founded. He has printed money at a pace that by comparison almost makes Ben Bernanke look like a monetarist scrooge. More importantly, the ECB has de facto bailed out euro-zone countries even though that is very much against the statutes upon which the bank was founded. They have pushed interest rates through the floor, punishing banks for overnight lending to the bank, and they have a formal Quantitative Easing program in their back pocket.
Furthermore, the ECB was an active party in the austerity programs designed to save Europe’s welfare states in the midst of the crisis. Those programs exacerbated the crisis by suppressing activity in the private sector in order to make the welfare states look fiscally sustainable. Now Draghi is asking the same governments that he helped bully into austerity to stop trying to save their welfare states and instead be concerned with GDP growth.
Superficially this sounds like an opening toward a fiscal policy that uses private-sector metrics to measure its success. However, it is highly doubtful that Draghi and, especially, the governments of the EU’s member states, would be ready to actually do what is needed to get the European economy growing again. The first part of such a strategy would be to a combination of tax cuts and reforms to reduce and eventually eliminate the massive, redistributive entitlement programs that constitute Europe’s welfare states.
The second thing needed is a monetary policy that does not provide those same welfare states with a large supply of liquidity. The more cheap money welfare states have access to, the less inclined their governments are going to be to want to reform away their entitlement programs. On the contrary, they are going to want to preserve those programs as best they can.
Therefore, the last thing the ECB wants to do right now is to launch a QE program. Which, as the EU Observer story reports, is exactly what the ECB has in mind:
The Frankfurt-based bank is preparing to belatedly follow the lead of the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England by launching its own programme of quantitative easing (QE) – creating money to buy financial assets.
This comes on the heels of the Bank’s new policy to increase credit supply to commercial banks on the condition that they in turn increase lending to non-financial corporations. The bizarre part of this is that in an economy that is stagnant at best, contracting at worst, there is no demand for more credit among non-financial corporations. It really does not matter if banks throw money after manufacturers, trucking companies, real estate developers… they are not going to expand their businesses unless there is someone there to buy their goods and services. If there is no buyer out there, why waste time and money on producing the product – and why take on debt to do it?
I have reported in numerous articles recently on how the European economy is not going anywhere. Growth is anemic with a negative outlook. Unemployment is stuck at almost twice the U.S. level and the overall fiscal situation of EU member states has not improved one iota despite more than three years of harsh, welfare-state saving austerity.
As yet more evidence of a stagnant Europe, Eurostat’s flash inflation estimate for August says prices increased by 0.3 percent on an annual basis. This is a further weakening of inflation and reinforces my point that unless the European economy starts moving again, it will find itself in actual deflation very soon. But the macroeconomic consequences of deflation set in earlier than formal deflation, as economic agents build it into their expectations. It looks very much as if that has now happened.
Deflation is dangerous, but it is not a problem in itself. It is a very serious symptom of an economy in depression. It is important to follow the causal chain backward and understand how the macroeconomic system brings about deflation. This blog provides that analysis; very few others attempt to do so. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard over at the good British newspaper Guardian has demonstrated good insight, and a recent article by David Brady and Michael Spence of the Hoover Institution provided some very important perspectives. But so far insights about the systemic nature of the crisis are not very widely spread.
The only advice being dispensed with some consistency is, as mentioned, the one about more government spending. Dan Steinbock of the India, China and America Institute is an example of the growing choir behind that idea. He does so, however, in a somewhat convoluted fashion. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer he discusses the macroeconomic differences between Europe and America, though in a fashion that almost makes you believe he is a regular reader of this blog:
Half a decade after the financial crisis, the United States is recovering, but Europe is suffering a lost decade. Why? In the second quarter, the US economy grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4 percent, surpassing expectations. In the same time period, economic growth in the eurozone slowed to a halt (0.2%), well before the impact of the sanctions imposed on and by Russia over Ukraine. Germany’s economy contracted (-0.6%). France’s continued to stagnate (-0.1%) and Italy’s took a dive (-0.8%). How did this new status quo come about?
He is correct about the American economy widening its gap vs. Europe, he is correct about the Italian economy, about the French economy, and about the stagnant nature of the euro-zone economy. What he does not get right is his answer to the question why the European economy has once again ground to a halt:
[In] the eurozone, real GDP growth contracted last year and shrank in the ongoing second quarter, while inflation plunged to a 4.5 year low. Europe’s core economies performed dismally. In Germany, foreign trade and investment were the weak spots. The country could still achieve close to 2 percent growth in 2014-2016 until growth is likely to decelerate to 1.5 percent by late decade. In France, President Francois Hollande has already pledged €30 billion in tax breaks and hopes to cut public spending by €50 billion by 2017. Nevertheless, French growth stayed in 0.1-0.2 percent in the 1st quarter.
Then Steinbock proceeds to make a brave attempt to explain the depth of the European economic crisis:
Fiscal austerity and falling consumer confidence are preventing domestic demand from rebounding, while investment and jobs linger in the private sector. Pierre Gattaz, head of the largest employers union in France, has called the economic situation “catastrophic.” As France is at a standstill, Paris has all but scrapped the target to shrink its deficit. … The new stance is to avoid an explicit confrontation with Germany, but to redefine austerity vis-à-vis budgetary reforms.
It is unclear what Steinbock means by this. He appears to miss the point that there are two kinds of austerity: that which aims to save government and that which aims to grow the private sector. The two are mutually exclusive, both in theory and in practice. One might suspect that Steinbock refers to the government-first version, since that is the prevailing version in Europe. However, that makes it even more unclear what Steinbock has in mind when he talks about “budgetary reforms” – an educated guess would be the relaxation of the Stability and Growth Pact so that the French government, among others, can spend more frivolously.
Such a relaxation would not contribute anything for the better. All it would do is open for more government spending. Steinbock does not make entirely clear whether or not he recommends more government spending. His article, however, seems to lean in favor of that, and I strongly disagree with him on that point for reasons I have explained on many occasions. Let’s just summarize by noting that if Europe is going to replace government-first austerity with government-first spending, then it opens up an entirely new dimension of the continent’s crisis. That dimension is in itself so ominous it requires its own detailed analysis.
Europe’s version of austerity has been designed exclusively to save the continent’s big welfare states in very tough economic times. By raising taxes and cutting spending, governments in Greece, Spain, Italy and other EU member states have hoped to make their welfare states more slim-fit and compatible with a smaller tax base. The metric they have used for their austerity policies is not that the private sector would grow as a result – on the contrary, private-sector activity has been of no concern under government-first austerity. Unemployment has skyrocketed, private-sector activity has plummeted and Europe is in worse shape today than it was in 2011, right before the Great Big Austerity Purge of 2012.
The criticism of austerity was massive, but not in the legitimate form we would expect: instead of pointing to the complete neglect of private-sector activity, Europe’s austerity critics have focused entirely on the spending cuts to entitlement programs. While such cuts are necessary for Europe’s future, they cannot be executed in a panic-style fashion – they should be structural and remove, not shrink, spending programs. Furthermore, they cannot be combined with tax hikes: when you take away people’s entitlements you need to cut, not raise, taxes so they can afford to replace the entitlements with private-funded solutions. Tax hikes, needless to say, drain dry the private sector and exacerbate the recession that produced the need for austerity in the first place.
This is a very simple analysis of what is going on in Europe. It is simple yet accurate: my predictions throughout 2012, 2013 and so far through 2014 have been that there will be no recovery in Europe unless and until they replace government-first austerity with private-sector austerity. This means, plain and simple, that you stop using government-saving metrics as measurement of austerity success and instead focus on the growth of the private sector. This will rule out tax hikes and dictate very different types of spending cuts, namely those that permanently terminate government spending programs.
Unfortunately, this aspect of austerity is absent in Europe. All that is heard is criticism from socialists who want to keep the tax hikes but combine them with more government spending. A continuation, in other words, of what originally caused the current economic crisis (that’s right – it was not a financial crisis). These socialists won big in the French elections two years ago, gaining both the Elysee Palace and a majority in the national parliament. However, faced with the harsh economic realities of the Great Recession, they soon found that spending-as-usual was not a very good idea. At the same time, they have rightly seen the problems with the kind of government-first austerity that has been common fiscal practice in Europe. Now that their own agenda is proving to be as destructive as government-first austerity, France’s socialists do not know which way to turn anymore. This has led to a political crisis of surprisingly large proportions. Reports the EU Observer:
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday (25 August) tendered his government’s resignation after more leftist ministers voiced criticism to what is being perceived as German-imposed austerity. The embattled French President, Francois Hollande, whose popularity ratings are only 17 percent, accepted the resignation and tasked Valls to form a new cabinet by Tuesday, the Elysee palace said in a press release. “The head of state has asked him [Valls] to form a team in line with the orientation he has defined for our country,” the statement added – a reference to further budget cuts needed for France to rein in its public deficit.
From the perspective of the European Union, France has been the bad boy in the classroom, not getting with the government-first austerity programs that have worked so well in Greece (lost one fifth of its GDP) and Spain (second highest youth unemployment in the EU). Hollande’s main problem is that by not getting his economy back growing again he is jeopardizing the future of the euro, in two ways. First, perpetual stagnation with zero GDP growth has forced the European Central Bank into a reckless money-supply policy with negative interest rates on bank deposits and a de facto endless commitment to printing money. This alone is reason for the euro to sink, and the only remedy would be that the economies of the euro zone started growing again. Secondly, by exacerbating the recession in France, and by failing endemically to deliver on his promises of more growth and more jobs, Hollande is setting himself up to lose the 2017 presidential election to Marine Le Pen. First on her agenda is to pull France out of the euro; if the zone loses its second-biggest economy, what reasons are there for smaller economies like Greece to stay?
This is why he has now shifted policy foot, from the spending-as-usual strategy of 2012 to government-first austerity. But since neither is good for the private sector, frustration is rising within the ranks of France’s socialists to a point where it could cause a crippling political crisis. Euractiv again:
The rebel minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who had held the economy portfolio until Monday, over the weekend criticised his Socialist government for being too German-friendly. “France is a free country which shouldn’t be aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right,” he said at a Socialist rally on Sunday, urging a “just and sane resistance”. The day before, he gave an interview to Le Monde in which he claimed that Germany had “imposed” a policy of austerity across Europe and that other countries should speak out against it. Two more ministers, Benoit Hamon in charge of education and culture minister Aurelie Fillipetti, also rallied around Montebourg and said they will not seek a post in the new cabinet. In a resignation letter addressed to Hollande and Valls, Fillipetti accused them of betraying their voters and abandoning left-wing policies, at a time when the populist National Front is gaining ground everywhere. According to Le Parisien, Valls forced Hollande to let go of Montebourg by telling him “it’s either him or me.”
Ironically, the main difference between the socialist economic policies and those of the National Front is that the latter want to reintroduce the franc while the former want to stay with the euro. Other than that, the National Front wants to preserve the welfare state, though significantly cut down on the number of non-Europeans who are allowed to benefit from it. The socialists also want to preserve the welfare state, but also open the door for more non-European immigration.
In short, the differences between socialist and nationalist economic policy is limited to nuances. Needless to say, neither will help France back to growth and prosperity.
Meanwhile, according to the Euractiv story there is mounting pressure from outside France on President Hollande to stick with the government-first austerity program:
[The] government turmoil is also a sign of diverging views on how to tackle the country’s economic woes. French unemployment is at nearly 11 percent and growth in 2014 is forecast to be of only 0.5 percent. Meanwhile, French officials have already said the deficit will again surpass EU’s 3 percent target, and are negotiating another delay with the European Commission. The commission declined to comment on the new developments in France, with a spokeswoman saying they are “aware” and “in contact” with the French government. German chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday during a visit to Spain declined to comment directly about the change in government, but said she wishes “the French president success with his reform agenda.” Both Merkel and Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy defended the need for further austerity and economic reforms, saying this boosted economic growth.
Growth – where? What growth is he talking about? But more important than the erroneous statement that the European economy is benefiting from attempts to save the welfare state, France is now becoming the focal point of more than just the future of the current European version of austerity. The struggle between socialists and competing brands of statism is a concentrate of a more general political trend in Europe. The way France goes, the way Europe will go. While the outcome of the statist competition will make a difference to immigration policy, it won’t change the general course of the economy. Both factions, nationalists and socialists, want to keep the welfare state and therefore preserve the very cause of Europe’s economic stagnation (which by the way is now in its sixth year).
Europe needs a libertarian renaissance. Its entrepreneurs, investors and workers need to stand up together and say “Laissez-nous faire!” with one voice. Then, and only then, will they elevate Europe back to where she belongs, namely at the top of the world’s prosperity league.
When do you stop talking about an economy as being in a recession, and when do you start talking about it as being in a state of permanent stagnation? How many years of microscopic growth does it take before economic stagnation becomes the new normal to people?
Since 2012 I have said that Europe is in a state of permanent economic stagnation. So far I am the only one making that analysis, but hopefully my new book will change that. After all, the real world economy provide pieces of evidence almost on a daily basis, showing that I am right. Today, e.g., the EU Observer explains:
France has all but abandoned a target to shrink its deficit, as the eurozone endured a turbulent day that raised the prospect of a triple-dip recession. Figures published by Eurostat on Thursday (14 August) indicated that the eurozone economy flatlined between April and June, while the EU-28 saw 0.2 percent growth.
I reported on this last week. These numbers are not surprising: the European economy simply has no reason to recover.
The EU Observer again:
Germany, France, and Italy … account for around two thirds of the eurozone’s output. Germany’s output fell by 0.2 percent, the same as Italy, which announced its second quarter figures last week. France recorded zero growth for the second successive quarter, while finance minister Michel Sapin suggested that the country’s deficit would exceed 4 percent this year, missing its European Commission-sanctioned 3.8 percent target.
And that target is a step back from the Stability and Growth Pact, which stipulated a deficit cap of three percent of GDP. It also puts a 60-percent-of-GDP cap on government debt, but that part seems to have been forgotten a long, long time ago.
What is really going on here is a slow but steady erosion of the Stability and Growth Pact. Over the past 6-8 months there have been a number of “suggestions” circulating the European political scene, about abolishing or at least comprehensively reforming the Pact. The general idea is that the Pact is getting in the way of government spending, needed to pull the European economy out of the recession.
No such government spending is needed. The European economy is standing still not because there is too little government spending, but because there is too much. I do not believe, however, that this insight will penetrate the policy-making circles of the European Union any time soon.
Back to the EU Observer:
In an article in Le Monde on Thursday (14 August), [French finance minister] Sapin abandoned the target, commenting that “It is better to admit what is than to hope for what won’t be.” France would cut its deficit “at an appropriate pace,” he added in a radio interview with Europe 1. … Sapin’s admission is another setback for beleaguered President Francois Hollande, who made hitting the 3 percent deficit target spelt out in the EU’s stability and growth pact by 2013 one of his key election pledges in 2012. Paris has now revised down its growth forecast from 1 percent to 0.5 percent over the whole of 2014, and cut its projection for 2015 to 1 percent from 1.7 percent.
Let me make this point again: instead of asking when the European economy is going to get back to growth again, it is time to ask if the European economy has any reason at all to get back to growth. As I explain in my new book, there is no such reason so long as the welfare state remains in place.
From a macroeconomic viewpoint Illinois is one of the worst-performing U.S. states. A big reason is the high taxes, by U.S. comparison, that drive jobs and businesses to other states. Illinois has raised its taxes more times than I care to count, with a “temporary” income-tax increase in 2011 that (huge surprise) has turned out to be permanent. States neighboring Illinois have been quick to capitalize on The Prairie State’s suicidal tax policy, with some crafty people in Indiana putting up this billboard at the state line:
The image is not mine. It was the thumbnail for a policy paper by the Illinois Policy Institute, a hard-working free-market think tank in Chicago. I chose to borrow it because it illustrates the campaign by Indiana to attract tax-weary Illinoisans. In doing so, Indiana participates in one of the most important economic activities of our time: tax competition. Since there is completely free movement of people and capital across state lines in the United States, the decisions by families and businesses where to reside and work is governed to a relatively large degree by factors such as the tax burden. High-tax states (count Illinois among them) lose jobs and investments to low-tax states.
Politicians who want to build big governments can then sell their welfare states to taxpayers as best they can – if taxpayers prefer to keep more of their own money, and pay for more of their own consumption directly out of their own pocket, then they can choose to do so.
Tax competition fulfills two major purposes. (For an excellent introduction to tax competition, please visit this site over at Center for Freedom and Prosperity.) The first purpose is to keep the free-market sector of the economy alive. When people make decisions to move, look for jobs or invest based in part on differences in taxation, it keeps us as economic agents on alert. We do not slouch on the job, we watch for better opportunities and thereby take responsibility for ourselves and those who depend on us.
The second purpose is to put a cap on the growth, and ideally size, of government. If people can vote with their feet – or money – then government will at some point have to reconsider its plans to expand with yet more tax hikes.
Which explains why there is such widespread contempt for tax competition among lawmakers, both in the United States and in Europe. The latest expression of that contempt comes from (another huge surprise) France, where socialist politicians want to do away with tax competition altogether, at least within the EU. Reports Euractiv:
Paris has long backed the idea of an across-the-board harmonisation of EU member states’ tax systems. According to French government advisors, this must begin by a common tax base for the European banking sector, EurActiv France reports. … Those in favour of harmonisation have a mountain to climb, but have not backed away from the challenge.
Fortunately, there is still a shred of common sense to be shared among some in Europe:
Experts across Europe oppose a common tax system on the basis that competition between tax systems is positive and forces governments to be more efficient.
This, however, has not prevented government expansionists from making the most absurd arguments for abolishing tax competition. Euractiv again:
France has one of the highest levels of income tax in Europe and the government argues that low tax rates prevent the smooth working of the European Common Market. Earlier this year French President François Hollande said he wanted “harmonisation with our largest neighbours by 2020.” In a report titled Tax Harmonisation in Europe: Moving Forward, the [French government’s economic advisory council] CAE proposed three ways to tackle the negative effects of fiscal competition.
The very idea that low tax rates prevent “the smooth working” of the free market in the EU is patently absurd. The argument is based on the notion that when tax rates are the same everywhere, businesses make decisions based not on taxes but on “real” business matters. But that notion disregards the fact that government is an active player in the economy, and that its services – while provided inefficiently under a coercion-based monopoly – are like most other services in the economy. I can choose to buy tax-paid services from the New York state government, or from the state of Wyoming, just as I can choose to bank with Warren Federal Credit Union or First Interstate Bank, or to buy my insurance products from Farmers, GEICO or any other insurance company.
Since government is an active player in our economy, it must be subjected to the same free-market conditions as the rest of us, as far as that is possible.
However, as we go back to the Euractiv piece we learn that this is not a concept that European statists are willing to entertain:
The first measure is to continue efforts for a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB). Harmonising tax systems would make “fiscal competition more transparent and healthier,” says Agnès Bénassy-Quéré. According to Alain Trannoy, an economist who co-wrote the report, a CCCTB should be based on “reinforced cooperation or with some countries like Germany, France, the Benelux states and Italy, in order to create a snowball effect in different Eurozone countries.” Harmonising tax bases would also reduce the risks of optimisation, when multinationals transfer their revenues from one country to another in order to benefit from lower corporate tax. “Corporate tax is an important element, but there is no point if tax bases are not harmonised,” said Alain Trannoy.
And now for the three-dollar bill question: once these high-tax EU states succeed in creating a high-tax cartel, what is going to happen with the tax rates?
a) They will go up,
b) They will go up, or
c) They will go up.
You may choose whichever answer you want, so long as your choice is harmonized with the answers you do not choose.
According to the authors, the Banking Union, which was adopted in April, needs to go further in the area of taxation. This can be done with a Single Financial Activity Tax (FAT) in Europe. They also advocate a minimum corporate income tax for the banking sector, the receipts of which should be reinvested into infrastructure and long term investments and “form the first building block of a euro area budget.”
And there you have it. The real purpose behind this is to build yet another level of government spending. While it sounds noble to invest in “infrastructure” and the like, this is, after all Europe. Therefore, it is a safe bet to foresee that if this new level of government were ever to be created, its spending would go primarily toward yet more entitlement programs in an even more complex welfare state. Let’s keep in mind that there are already politicians on the left flank of European politics who are pushing hard for harmonized entitlement programs across the EU. What better venue for that harmonization than a full-fledged, EU-level welfare state?
And as we all immediately understand, the world’s largest welfare state, which has not solved all the alleged problems of inequality and poverty it was created to solve, must therefore obviously become a lot bigger.
Out there, on the outer left rim of unabridged statism, the question “when is government big enough?” simply does not have an answer. With the next EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs likely being a socialist, this unanswered question is going to have serious consequences for Europe. Its current journey into industrial poverty, paved by the world’s most sloth-inducing entitlement systems and fueled by the world’s highest taxes, apparently is not going fast enough.